Paolo Uccello was an Italian Florentine painter active during the Early Renaissance. He was noted for his pioneer execution of perspectives in his compositions, which he portrayed with astounding detail. Uccello was a significant figure during his time, considered by Giorgio Vasari, along with Donatello, Masaccio, Ghiberti, and Brunelleschi, as one of the Renaissance's leading artists. Lorenzo' de Medici, the great-grandfather of Cosimo' de Medici, once ordered his soldiers to take by force three of Uccello's paintings from its owner, placing them in one of his most valuable rooms....
Paolo Uccello was an Italian Florentine painter active during the Early Renaissance. He was noted for his pioneer execution of perspectives in his compositions, which he portrayed with astounding detail. Uccello was a significant figure during his time, considered by Giorgio Vasari, along with Donatello, Masaccio, Ghiberti, and Brunelleschi, as one of the Renaissance's leading artists. Lorenzo' de Medici, the great-grandfather of Cosimo' de Medici, once ordered his soldiers to take by force three of Uccello's paintings from its owner, placing them in one of his most valuable rooms.
Paolo Uccello's early life is somewhat unclear, scholars believe that he was born circa 1397 in Pratovecchio, Italy, and his real name was Paolo di Dono. Uccello's father was Dono di Paolo, a barber and surgeon from Pratovecchio. His mother was Antonia di Giovanni Castello del Beccuto. The del Beccuto family were Florentines originally from Perugia and had a high status, owning real estate close to the center of Florence.
His first documented apprenticeship was under the famous sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, from 1412 until 1416, approximately until his 19 years of age. Ghiberti's workshop was the most distinguished center for Florentine art production at the time. This period was also when Paolo began his friendship with Donatello, which they cultivated for all their lives. Another artist that was part of the workshop was Benozzo Gozzoli. It is unknown how Uccello learned how to paint since Ghiberti only painted early in his career.
It's safe to say that young Uccello's appreciation for the detailed ornaments of the Late Gothic art was an influence he inherited from working in Ghiberti's workshop. During this period, his artistic name arose, as he had the habit of depicting birds in empty spaces of the artworks. His love for birds gave origin to his nickname Paolo Uccelli, meaning Paul of the Birds.
By the age of 18, Paolo was accepted at the official Florentine painter's guild, the Arte dei Medici e degli Speziali. Historians speculate that the painter's early admission in the guild was due to his father's participation since barbers and painters shared the same guild. Uccello remained on good terms with his master, despite him leaving the workshop by the mid-1420s. Masaccio joined the same guild in 1422. Giotto and Dante were also part of the institution during their lives.
Uccello on His Own
Early artworks from Uccello are hard to trace. The ten years between 1415 and 1425 have very few documentation about his life. In 1425 he wrote his will, which was unusual for someone in their late twenties to do. The Santa Maria Nuova Hospital was the primary beneficiary of his document.
By 1425, Deo Beccuti, a relative of Uccello's mother and an influential man in Florence, became somewhat of a mentor for the artist, which can be confirmed when he became responsible for Paolo's tax return. This was also because from 1425 to 1431, the artist lived, or at least remained a great amount of time, in Venice. Beccuti was an important figure in the artist's life and, not coincidentally, commissioned many artworks from him - so many that Uccello was able to buy his own house.
An artwork that survived from this period is St. George and The Dragon (circa 1430), a theme the artist would revisit two times and, in this case, exhibits much influence from Late Gothic. The painting is located at a Melbourne museum.
According to Giorgio Vasari, Uccello's reputation began to rise due to his expertly crafted perspective and his craftsmanship in creating the illusion of three-dimensional space. A beautiful example of his skills is the masterpiece The Annunciation, also done during his period spent in Venice. It features a large building with its columns in perspective. This artwork would become a model that artists followed as a learning tool, especially regarding its use of perspective and its powerful composition.
Back to Florence
The time that the painter had spent outside of his city was a crucial one. When he came back, fellow artists such as Donatello already had an established career. Painting had changed, influenced by the works of Masaccio. Artists of the scope of Fra Angelico were inhabiting the city and making successful commercial relations.
Creation of Eve and Original Sin and Creation of the Animals and Creation of Adam done in the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella seems like an adaptation or reaction to the changes in the cultural landscape. In these monochrome works, Uccello focused on the detail of nature and geometric composition while painting the bodies in a way that resembles the anatomy in Masaccio's production.
Finding difficulties in maintaining patrons in the city, Paolo decided to stay in Bologna for some time. There, he painted a fresco in the San Martino church, which was unfortunately lost. With the help of Deo, he can finally buy a house in Florence. Leon Battista Alberti published in 1435 one of the founding theoretical texts on painting, De pictura. The book establishes many parameters and norms that Renaissance painters adopted and makes a turn from Art History to a humanist and narrative field.
Later Years and Death
In 1436, the artist was commissioned by the Opera of the Duomo to make the painting Equestrian Monument to Sir John Hawkwood. It is the first time that he signs as Uccello. From this year on and during the 1440s, the well-established artist wasn't struggling with any economic difficulties. The artist even rented a house that functioned as a workshop for some years. The stained glass windows made for the Opera del Duomo, Nativity, and Resurrection Of Christ were made in his workshop.
Upon his return to Florence in 1446, after a brief stay in Padua, the artist painted Green Stations of the Cross, once again for the church of Santa Maria Novella. From around 1447 to 1454, the artist executed Scenes of Monastic Life. By the mid-1450s, Uccello created three of his most celebrated frescoes, the panels representing The Battle of San Romano for the Palazzo Medici.
By 1453, the artist married Tommasa Malifici, the same year his son Donato was born, named after Donatello. His daughter Antonia became a Carmelite nun, and documents suggest that she was also a skilled painter. However, her artworks and style are still unknown. She was one of the few recorded female painters of the XVth century in Florence.
During the same year, the artist was appointed as captain of the Confraternity of Saint Luke, indicating he was held in respect and prestige during this period. This status went against the general idea, popularized by Giorgio Vasari, that the painter was poor and solitary during his life. By 1457, Uccello's workshop was in the Piazza di San Giovanni, the central square of Florence.
Paolo Uccello was active even at an older age. One of his most famous works, St. George and the Dragon, today part of the National Gallery's collection, was done in 1455 or 1456 when the painter was entering into his sixties. His final known artwork was The Hunt in the Forest, finished circa 1470.
Paolo Uccello passed away on December 10, 1475, in Florence, Italy.
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